Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s names have been paired together for decades, and each year there is speculation over where Guthrie ends and Bob Dylan begins. There are countless opinions, “first hand” accounts, interpretations, and even educated guesses, as to just how much of an influence the folk legend had on Dylan. Indeed there are the stories of how Dylan claimed that Woody carried around a copy of his own “Last Song to Woody” in his pocket, and that Dylan wore stolen pairs off Woody’s underwear (Sounes 104). The stories illustrate a possible obsession with the singer, but for every story of fanaticism there are others of substance. Pete Seger believes Bob is much more than a mere Guthrie copy, saying “He didn’t mold himself upon Woody Guthrie. He was influenced by him. But he was influenced by a lot of people. He was his own man always” (Sounes 111). There certainly are similarities between the men’s lifestyles, song writing, and their relationship with the media. Guthrie played a part in influencing Dylan on all of those accounts, becoming a large part of the music we hear in Bob Dylan today.
Both Bob and Woody are men who didn’t quite fit into a particular mold. They have both been described as magnetic, and mysterious in their own right. The two men came from working class backgrounds and neither family offered overwhelming support for their son pursuing a musical career. The Guthrie’s un-swaying faith in Capitalism began to wear on Woody, as he became more and more drawn to the underprivileged, which is a model Bob Dylan would follow years later(Folk Hero, Hajdu). Guthrie and Dylan made the pilgrimage to New York City at a young age on the blind faith that they would make it in the city and not much else. As a result of their devotion to their careers, their personal lives took a backseat. Guthrie’s first wife, Mary, eventually grew tired of the constant uprooting of her family and divorced Woody after allowing him to return to New York without them (Cray, Ramblin Man p. 213). Bob Dylan endured various failed relationships and at least two failed marriages while on his never-ending tour. This type of “rambling lifestyle” cost various personal relationships and marriages. The extent Bob knew about Woody’s personal life is debatable, but it was apparent that he admired his devotion to his art.
Woody Guthrie was a man of the people, “Guthrie drew upon raw experience on the road, of the hardships of working people, the unemployed, and the marginalized” (New York World Encylopedia). There is a quote about Dylan from Down The Highway that says,
“ Bob wasn’t blind to the harshness of New York; he sang abou t the hard life of poor people when John. D. Rockelfeller lived like a king. He sand about the dirt, the overcrowding, and the inequalities. But he ended the song with a challenge to the city: if it coulcd try and beat him, but when he left, he vowed, ‘I’ll be standin on my feet’ (Sounes 108).
The similarities between the men’s descriptions are undeniable. Songs of the working class and un-unionized labor based on stories pulled right of the newspaper served at Guthrie’s model for writing a folk song. This kind of topical song writing became embedded in Bob Dylan’s songs. When Dylan first arrived in New York he composed a song entitled “Last Song to Woody”. Years later he was quoted as saying, “ I just thought about Woody, I wondered about him, thought harder and harder. I wrote the song in about five minutes” (Zuckerman). Set to the tune of Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”, the song serves as a one of the only direct borrowings from Guthrie’s work.
On countless other Dylan songs, the pattern of taking an event from the newspaper and turning it into a song, even a form of protest song, is apparent. Most believe the albums with the heaviest Guthrie influence are Dylan’s first albums, Bob Dylan and Freewheelin, up until 1963. Songs like “The Death of Emmet Till” (noted as being Dylan’s first protest song), “Ballad of Don White”, “Oxford Town”, and the “Times they are a Changin” demonstrate heavy Guthrie influence through their lyrics of protest and unifying the underdog.
“And by any number of bets in the book/Will be rollin’ long after
the bubblegum craze/ You need something to open up a new door/
To show you something you seen before/ But overlooked a hundred
times or more” – Song to Woody
It was around this time that Dylan felt defined and constrained by his “folk singer” label and his music style shifted drastically. Dylan traded his dirty jeans for a designer wardrobe, and with the switch came moans from many Dylan followers afraid they had lost the “Old Bob” (Wiki). However, Guthrie’s influence remained. Although not as apparent in entire albums, songs like “Hurricane” offer a quick escape back to when Guthrie was the strongest in Dylan’s young mind.
The way Guthrie sang his songs has been said to have influenced Dylan. Around the time when Bob met hi, his voice was drastically affected by his case of Hunington’s cholera. Rather than sing clearly, his voice was breathy and “huffy”. It has been said that Bob copied the “vocal eccentricities as the authentic Guthrie voice” (Sounes 83). Guthrie’s daughter, Majorie, recalls how each time she watched Bob during a show she would later ask him to “speak clearly, Woody would have never sung like that”.
When Dylan first arrived on the folk seen, he adapted the talent of making of grandiose stories of his past that changed from one reporter to the next. . It was a trait Dylan admired this trait of Guthrie that was said so ensure “artist authenticity” (NY Encyclopedia) and made it apart of his ever-changing “Bob Dylan” persona. Dylan benefited greatly from taking on Guthrie’s tongue and cheek policy with the media. Dylan strived to not take an interview too seriously, although reviews were sometimes hard for him to brush off. TO this day it is hard to get a straight answer out of Dylan, they’re usually every changing.
When Bob met Woody that Summer in 1961, it is definite that something changed. Harold Leventhall recalls, “I don’t think Woody thought anything of Bob” with Pete Seeger adding, “ Woody just sat on the couch, he was already too far gone” (Sounes 82). Even if Woody was in too poor health to appreciate Bob, for Dylan the time they spent together served as one of the highlights of his entire life. “Guthrie was his guru” Leventhal states (Sounes 82). It’s been said that Bob would sometimes pull out a card he claimed Guthrie wrote. That said “ I ‘aint dead yet” (Sounes 79). Whether or not this is true isn’t important, but rather the significance in representing the relationship between Bob and Guthrie. No matter how much Guthrie actually took in and processed, the lasting effects of his actions remain within Bob, and are immortalized in his songs. It seems everyone has a different opinion on where Guthrie ended and Dylan began, but the significance doesn’t lie in wherever the point falls, but in the music that is the result.
Cray, Ed. Ramblin’ Man: the Life and times of Woody Guthrie.
New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.
Hadju, David. “Folk Hero.” The New Yorker 29 Mar. 2004: 1-4. New Yorker. Web. 11 May 2010. <http://newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/29/040329_crbo_books>.
New York. Web. 10 May 2010. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O29-NEWYORK.html>.
Sounes, Howard. Down the Highway: the Life of Bob Dylan.
New York: Grove, 2001. Print.
Zuckerman, Matthew. “Dylan Influences.” Web log post. Dylan Influences. 20 Feb. 1997. Web. 10 May 2010. <expectgrain.com/dok/div/influences.html>.